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11 Business Books You Must Read

An incredible variety of business books is available for you to read and to buy. Becoming bewildered by the choice is easy, and sorting out which books are of the greatest benefit is difficult. But you have to start somewhere. Anyone who works in any organisation, as well as business school students, should read the following must-have classic books.

In Search of Excellence

Thomas J Peters and Robert H Waterman (Harper & Row, 1982)

This book transformed the whole approach to management thinking and practice, above all by bringing real managers in real companies out into the open. A bestseller that JK Rowling would be proud of, In Search of Excellence holds the mirror up to 63 companies and evaluates the characteristics that ought to be present in top-performing organisations and those characteristics present in the organisations studied. Surprise, surprise – everything is there: bias for action, closeness to customers, attention to product and service quality, strength and expertise of leadership. Each is a management priority if the company or organisation is to succeed.

Some argue that the book is now dated, and others cite the downturn in the performance of many of the companies studied as evidence that the work of Peters & Waterman wasn’t flawless. Well, nothing ever is, and this reality applies, above all, to business and management books! But read Peters & Waterman anyway – it brought business out into the open, and the principles (if not all the examples) still hold good for the most part.

Managing for Results

Peter F Drucker (Harper & Row, 1964)

In this book – a real classic in the field of management and written by the greatest business and management author of them all – Drucker takes the development of his management theories a step further by showing readers how to create an organisation that prospers and grows. Drucker encourages readers to focus on opportunities in their organisations rather than on problems. The book suggests that managers take a hard look at an organisation’s strengths and weaknesses to develop effective plans and strategies.

The book also states that managers have to be competent across the whole field of management, as well as expert in their own particular area; and especially, that this expertise must cover strategic capability and staff and human resource management.

The Hidden Persuaders

Vance Packard (Penguin, 1957)

Vance Packard concentrated on those elements that brought value and usefulness to products and services. Rather than looking at technological excellence and performance, Packard studied those factors that caused people to buy, use and consume products and services. His research concluded that a clearly definable range of triggers have to be in place to generate people’s interest:

  • Emotional security, comfort and confidence: This trigger relates especially to bulk purchases of food and safety features in cars.

  • Reassurance of worth: Purchases must make customers feel good, for example by buying branded clothing and other quality goods for which there are high levels of recognition.

  • Ego gratification: Giving the purchaser a sense of pride and self-worth, for example by having the ability to buy your own home or top of the range car.

  • Creativity: Products and services are sold to give the user a feeling of achievement (this trigger is one of the key drivers of the DIY industry).

  • Love objects: The cuddly toy, the dear little child or the cute little animal, for example in the marketing of baby clothes, pet foods, home furnishings and cleanliness products.

  • Power and influence: For example, as reflected in the presentation and marketing of cars.

  • Traditions and roots: This trigger asks people to look back to ‘the good old days’ and to relate those perceptions and feelings to what is on offer.

  • Immortality: Used as the trigger to sell insurance and other long-term financial and investment products because they provide the feeling of eternal reassurance and financial security.

Packard’s work was the first to be published that addressed customer and client behaviour in any detail. All these years later, it still forms the substantive basis for marketing and promotional activities.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Marks & Spencer

Judi Bevan (Harper Collins, 2008)

At one level, this book is simply a history of a business that’s been successful for over 100 years and has become a great British institution. However, within this history are many key lessons that every student of business ought to be aware of:

  • The need for customer service as a priority

  • The need for good-quality products and services at all times

  • The need to know and understand your customers in the greatest detail possible

  • The importance of managing and motivating your staff so that they deliver excellent customer service and commit themselves to the organisation while at work

The book charts in detail the business crisis that occurred at the end of the 20th century when Marks & Spencer tried to enter the youth market. It also charts the stages in crisis management that the company had to go through in order to come out the other side – and so return to its roots.

The Ryanair Story

Siobhan Creaton (HarperCollins, 2003)

This book is invaluable as a history of what happened when one man with a clear vision took hold of an ailing organisation, received full backing from the owners and transformed what was about to fail into one of the 21st century’s great success stories.

Every part of the story is told in full detail. In particular, the book makes it apparent that the stamp of Michael O’Leary, the company’s chief executive, is on every part of the business.

The author explores every aspect of the business, from ensuring that customers know and understand exactly what they’re getting from Ryanair (and exactly what they’re not getting from Ryanair) to the reliability of the Internet booking services, the nature of the schedules, destinations on offer and the complexities of the fare structures.

The book is, above all, a statement of how anyone who’s involved in any business, company or organisation needs to know and understand everything that there is to know and understand! None of this could have happened – indeed, there would be no Ryanair success story – if Michael O’Leary had not paid detailed attention to every aspect of the business.

Competitive Strategy

Michael E Porter (Free Press, 1980)

This book concentrates on the need for clarity of purpose founded on a core position that you have to have if you are to compete effectively (flip to Chapter 8 for more on this). The idea is really quite simple – if you don’t have clarity of purpose, you can’t expect others to understand what you’re delivering, or on what basis. Porter explains that the core foundation or generic position needs to concentrate on one of the following:

  • Securing cost leadership or cost advantage: You have much greater flexibility in the prices you can charge, and the cost leader has the greatest strength in withstanding price wars.

  • Securing brand leadership and quality advantage based on differentiation: You can charge premium prices for your products and services provided that the benefits delivered through differentiation are of value to customers.

If you can’t secure one of these positions, then you tend to lose out to those that can unless you have something else that’s of value to the customer – for example, convenience, location or sectoral confidence.

Finally, the book lays down that strategy has to have a focus – concentrating on mass markets, or else concentrating on narrow, specialist and precisely defined niches that are capable of supporting viable levels of business.

Competitive Strategy is a major piece of work of the highest substance and order. It’s essential reading for anyone serious about developing this part of their knowledge and expertise.

Management Stripped Bare

Jo Owen (Kogan Page, 2002)

A cheerful debunking of fads and fashions, management-speak and the actions (or inactions) taken by managers to avoid facing the real issues that directly affect the success and viability of their organisations.

The core message of Management Stripped Bare is clear: until those in management positions stop talking about ‘hitting the ground running’ and ‘thinking outside the box’, and start clarifying their own purpose and developing real expertise in delivering it, organisations will continue to underperform. A really good, informative, substantial – and entertaining – read.

In Search of European Excellence

Robert Heller (HarperCollins, 1998)

Robert Heller is the first of the UK’s top business and management authorities, and many years ago he founded what’s now the Chartered Management Institute and the magazine Management Today (another management must-read!).

Written nearly 20 years after Peters & Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, this book concentrates on the experiences of some of the largest and best-known UK and European multinational corporations, companies and public service bodies. The currency of many of the lessons from Peters & Waterman – clarity of purpose, strength and expertise of leadership, product and service quality, flexibility and responsiveness – are still found to hold good.

Robert Heller draws particular attention to the shortcomings in performance and confidence in companies and organisations where, for whatever reason, these principles and practices no longer apply, or else have been allowed to slide.

This book is full of examples from companies and organisations that everyone is familiar with, and is substantial, informative and entertaining.

Understanding Organisations

Charles B Handy (Penguin, 1996)

The most famous and foremost of all UK management thinkers, Handy started his career as a corporate executive at what’s now Royal Dutch Shell, before moving into the world of business schools, and management teaching and development.

Understanding Organisations provides comprehensive, clear and concise coverage of every aspect of how people behave in organisations, and what managers therefore need to know, understand and apply.

Handy includes the tricky areas of roles, character, and attitudes and values, as well as the mainstream of leadership, motivation, groups and conflict. The book is full of useful examples of how you apply theories of behaviour in practice and how to learn and use your knowledge in all parts of business.

Body and Soul: The Body Shop Story

Anita Roddick (Ebury Press, 1992)

The Body Shop was founded in the early 1970s during economic downturns both in the UK and elsewhere – so one may think that the last thing anyone needed was a new brand of cosmetics. Nevertheless, The Body Shop was distinctive from the whole of the rest of the cosmetics industry, and in spite of the external pressures and customs of the industry, it succeeded.

The book tells the story of the founding, development and subsequent globalisation of The Body Shop. It explains the clear set of guiding principles and strong ethical base on which The Body Shop was created, and the commitment to all stakeholders – especially third-world suppliers – that have subsequently been so critical to the company’s success. Also included are the crucial aspects of product and service quality, branding and differentiation, and especially the images of cosmetics and portrayal of the women who use them.

The sheer energy and enthusiasm of Anita Roddick, her husband Gordon, and everyone else involved comes shining through on every page, so read it as a guide to the mentality required to succeed, and the fun and adventures that you can have doing it. And read it also in the knowledge that in 2006 the company was sold to L’Oreal – one of those ‘other’ cosmetics companies that she was so critical of earlier in The Body Shop’s history!

Maverick!

Ricardo Semler (Century, 1992)

If Drucker is the greatest authority, then Maverick is the greatest story! Ricardo Semler tells of how he transformed his family firm, a company making commercial white goods and pumps that, in his own words, was ‘moribund’, into a company that ‘thrives chiefly by refusing to squander our greatest asset – the talents of our people.’

The story takes place in Brazil, where Semler achieved everything within the ever-so-slightly difficult confines of an inflation rate of 3,000 per cent (or 10 per cent per day) and a failure rate in the Brazilian capital goods sector of one in three. The business includes fully flexible working, self-managing teams, motivation and commitment, and concentration on product and service quality, all underpinned by open books, full access to information and a profit-sharing scheme in which the staff receive 23 per cent of retained profits. The company has a hierarchy of two levels only, and everyone has full and universal access to managers, including the top managers and Ricardo Semler himself.

Maverick is required reading at many business schools, and it’s an absolute must-read for anyone who aspires to manage anything, anywhere!

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